Interview with Gareth Davies, Chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union


In December 2019, Cardiff Business Club hosted a members-only Christmas Drinks. Special guest of the evening was Gareth Davies, Chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union.

Having just returned from an exhilarating Rugby World Cup in Japan, Gareth engaged the Club and its members in a thought-provoking presentation on the tournament from a Welsh rugby perspective, followed by an immersive Q&A with the audience and Club Director and former Wales international, Paul Thorburn.

Gareth started off by remarking that “most of my friends kept ripping me on the ‘holiday’ I was going on, the free lunches and the golf I was going to play – little did they know there was a lot of travelling involved. I took 22 flights, 15 rail journeys on the Shinkansen, the famous bullet train and saw 24 games of rugby.”

He then went on to talk about the impact that this year’s World Cup had both from a sporting and wider economic perspective. He said:

The history books will recall that the Rugby World Cup 2019 obtained the most coverage, was the most engaging, most well attended, most profitable. The list goes on and it truly was legacy driven.” This was made all the more remarkable in that the host nation became the first Asian country to reach a quarter final.

“The enthusiasm from Japan was immense, they really embraced rugby – they are not necessarily known for rugby, but they hosted a tremendous event,” he said.

“The match against Scotland was something else and the match had record viewing figures of 58.4 million – that is the most watched rugby match ever. They should be truly proud of their performance and efforts of organising a highly successful, world-class event.”

Gareth was particularly wowed by the infrastructure in Japan as well as the workers dedication to ensuring the success of the Rugby World Cup:

“I remember being in a car and it was almost like driving through Snowdonia, all you could see were tunnels, cutting through the landscape – and doing interviews with Radio 4 and Radio 5 – with a clear signal – similar to Cardiff, when you cant get a signal just outside the city on the M4!!!!”

Culturally too, Japan offered so much as Gareth explained:

“The people were just fantastic, and the Japanese fans were not only wowed by their home team but took a particular shine to the Welsh team too.

“There was a time where the Welsh team came to train in the Kitakyuishu stadium where 15,000 people turned out to watch Wales train- and in fact they broke the rules a little,  as 300 more than the official capacity piled into the stadium- just to watch them train- and they sang the Welsh national anthem perfectly. The support was incredible.

Summarising his presentation and rounding up the success of the 2019 Rugby World Cup he stated that Japan excelled on all criteria, namely financial success. Once the final reconciliation is complete, Gareth stated, Japan will be “confirmed as the first billion-dollar tournament in terms of revenue generated- it’s truly a model for future world cups.”

Indeed, 99 per cent of all tickets were sold – just over 1.8 million tickets, and over 400,000 visitors. Add the digital and social media figures and the numbers surpassed even those of the Olympics. “What really made it was the trailblazing brave blossoms [Japan].”

The Club Director Paul Thorburn then led an immersive Q&A, taking questions from the audience.

PT – Paul Thorburn

GD – Gareth Davies

CM – Club member

PT: Seemingly strategy moving forward will have a broader outlook, how realistic will it be to broaden nation involvement?

GD: The first few weeks in Japan were tough, but by the last two weeks they were talking about holding it there in the future. The whole tournament was really successful.

It all comes down to finances, there are countries that do receive targeted investment, such as the US, Germany and Brazil. If they have the political support these could prove successful rugby nations. The next decision will be by the end of 2021 and the process will start soon, so a lot of it comes down to discussions with countries. A number of countries may be interested, e.g. Australia possibly would like to hold the next World Cup, and it would be good to break into the USA maybe in 2031-but this will be reliant on many factors.

CM: Can you assure us that rugby will remain free-to-view?

GD: Unfortunately, I can’t give any assurances – it’s an interesting time in broadcasting. There has always been continuous escalation in rights’ fees, but the landscape is changing and it’s tricky at present.

We have run out of contract with the BBC for the Autumn tests, that came to an end last year and we are currently negotiating with future partners. Broadcasters are interested in rugby, but we must aggregate our rights as nations in order to maximise our revenues as rugby is under-commercialised. We are of course mindful of free-to-air, however the issue we face is bringing partners together and deciding on the best deal.

CM: On a local level, Cardiff Blues and the regions don’t have a huge fan base, how can we change this?

GD: We have new agreements in place with the Regions, but it’s difficult to change old behaviour which can be an issue, but the Union and the Regions are working hard for the best for the professional game.  There is a lot more money on the table and we are looking to bring in more investment. What it comes down to is success. Success needs success to flourish.

CM: What is the rugby union doing to encourage young people to play and succeed in rugby?

GD: Just recently I was in Leeds on Saturday afternoon and I went into the nice restaurant and bar chain, Browns. The place was absolutely heaving, and the demographic must have been between 18 and 30. I don’t think I had ever been to a bar on Saturday afternoon, because of playing rugby and sport in general, that reflects how society has changed. It’s hard to encourage younger people to give up their afternoons and weekends. That is why we have encouraged the growth in alternative games such as touch rugby, or beach rugby or walking rugby.

Rugby clubs today aren’t there just producing players though, they are providing community centres. There are so many other things to do these days it’s just promoting rugby as a sense of community that will help.

CM:  Rhys Carré lost 10kg during training, how is it possible that a rugby player is 10kg over his game weight and how can you work with the fitness team to play to a better level?

GD: He was probably an exception and being a new face probably wasn’t quite enough fit to play international rugby, but the coaching staff must have seen something in him. The national coaching team have commented over the years that the guys are coming into camp doing fitness work rather than skill work. Rhys came in and had a lot to do. He was a player that saw the bigger picture and worked hard. Providing he sticks to that he should definitely be around for years to come.